Bumming a Ride with the Occupation Parade: A Look at Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan

peltonThe latest item of military travel writing from Afghanistan is from Robert Young Pelton (photo), who spent some weeks in Afghanistan getting to know the work of Human Terrain Teams. The article is titled, “Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds,” and was published on January 21, 2009, in Men’s Journal. The article must have been completed before the first week of January, since there is no mention of the fact of Paula Loyd’s death, who is reported as injured in the article. There are also some errors, such as labeling Michael Bhatia, the first Human Terrain fatality, as an anthropologist.

In some respects it resembles another first-hand account that was produced by Steve Featherstone for Harper’s Magazine a few months ago, while lacking the same degree of ambiguity and cover for the Human Terrain System (HTS). Pelton’s report, which is not written in the manner of a critique, nonetheless provides some rather unflattering glimpses and some sobering counterpoints to those who endorse HTS with little in the way of reservation. The main theme seems to be that HTS is haphazard work, not even equipped to travel independently to meet Afghans, and staffed by people with dubious qualifications. It is a relatively long piece, and rather than try to summarize it here I will simply reproduce and annotate my favourite extracts from the piece. These are merely notes and quotes, for my own future reference, and not a substitute for the article itself.


Anthropologists as instruments of warfare

I hope to get my first look at America’s latest instrument of warfare: anthropologists.

The idea behind human terrain teams, or HTTs, is to put a small army of civilian social scientists (ideally anthropologists) and intel-savvy military officers into the field to give brigade commanders a better understanding of local dynamics. The teams are charged with “mapping” social structures, linkages, and priorities, just as a recon team might map physical terrain. By talking to locals the teams might help identify which village elder the commander should deal with or which tribe might be a waste of time; which valley should get a roads project and whether a new road might create a dispute between villages. It’s all part of General David Petraeus’s doctrine of a smarter, management-style counterinsurgency.

Steve Fondacaro: Speaking with a broken jaw

[I reproduce this segment mostly for its comical value.]

The man charged with managing the program is retired special operations colonel Steve Fondacaro. He is so passionate about it that when I interviewed him back in the States, he held forth for nine hours straight. Seven hours in, he walked into a door, breaking his jaw, but resumed talking.

Dead HTS researchers: Bad for recruitment

It hasn’t helped Fondacaro’s recruiting efforts that in the past nine months two HTT civilian scientists have been killed on the job, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq.

Describing a Human Terrain Team

The press office eventually finds the human terrain team of Task Force Warrior…in a cramped 15-by-25-foot makeshift building. The team’s own terrain is filled with laptops, maps, pens, notebooks, and cluttered desks. The unit consists of one social scientist, three research managers, an IT guy, and three translators, or “terps.”

The scientist, Jim, is easy to identify as he is the one who begs not to his have his photo taken or last name used….He’s a 50-something anthro who worked in Afghanistan two decades ago but seems more preoccupied with the subject of how unique the genetic makeup of Laotians is….

Two of the research managers are reserve officers, and the other is an ex-soldier who served in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Of the two civilian interpreters, one describes himself as “Persian,” which I take to mean that he’s a Shia Iranian-American working in an environment mostly hostile to Shias, and the other, Gulam, is an Afghan mechanic from Colorado who hasn’t been here since he left in the ’70s….

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Rotzoll is the man in charge. He is 5-foot-2 and Buddha-like in demeanor and shape. A former analyst for the CIA, his special skill is that he is fluent in Chinese….

So that’s a Laotian DNA expert, a Chin­ese speaker, an ex-army grunt, and an auto mechanic.

HTTs do not move on their own

The other thing I quickly size up is that Rotzoll’s team doesn’t have a specific mission or even any vehicles, so they are left to tag along on other missions out of Bagram.

Do the civilian social scientists do the interviews?

From what I’ve gathered so far, when it comes to getting out in the field and talking to locals, the research manager who seems to do much of the heavy lifting is Lieutenant Jeremy Jones. From Indiana….The son of missionaries, Jones went to a lower-tier liberal arts college and got a bachelor’s in history. His last civilian employment was selling weight-loss products and waiting tables at a Cheesecake Factory in Indianapolis….As an army lieutenant Jones makes about $30,000 before danger pay, while a top-tier scientist can make $250,000 a year in the program. Even Gulam, his interpreter, makes four times what Jones does.

Imperial Stormtroopers on a Fuck You Occupation Parade

The armored vehicles lumber and sway up switchbacks and through narrow village streets. The top gunners on the MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, 12 feet high, weighing 20 tons) give alternating fists, waves, or verbal threats to scatter the locals — mostly waving children and indifferent donkey herders. The contrast between our futuristic ride and the mud-village Tatooine-type poverty makes us look like the ultimate Imperial Stormtrooper, made-in-America, million-dollar-a-copy, fuck-you occupation parade.

….air-conditioning from 12 vents blasts us into an arctic stupor. Our only connection to the outside world is through four-inch-thick glass portholes, which add a green tinge.

The Human Terrain does enable the “Kill Chain”:

the dirty secret of “human terrain” mapping. In order to snip the connective tissue between the network of evildoers, someone has to figure out who they are. Whether you snip the web by being nice or nasty is irrelevant. The information Jones and his team collect with good intentions is all part of a massive database that may eventually lead to Paris Hilton (one of the troops) knocking on someone’s door.

A shifting terrain

Any Afghan who has survived to the ripe age of 40, let alone 70, has learned to not only get along with all sides but to play those sides against one another, which is precisely what makes mapping the human terrain here so tricky. It is completely normal for an Afghan to support both the Taliban insurgents coming over from Pakistan and the occupying forces at the same time. These villages will still be here after both groups have long disappeared.

Too late for researchers

“Today we have hundreds of researchers in Afghanistan but with no access. If the social scientists had been here in 2001 they would have a lot more access. Now everyone is interested in the Pashtuns, and the Pashtuns don’t want to talk with the foreigners.”

Social research as part of an elephantine military mission: Obvious contradictions

I ask him if he ever works with the U.S. Army’s human terrain teams. “I try to stay away from them,” he says. Anthropologist Michael Bhatia, the HTT member who was killed by an IED in Afghanistan, was his friend. “I talked to him three weeks before he was blown up. I said, What are you doing, driving around in a Humvee? You can’t be in the military and expect to work with the very people they are attacking.”


I also regularly use the term “occupation” when speaking of the U.S/NATO military mission in Afghanistan, as does Pelton. Yet one of the questions this article raises is what manner of occupation is this? What exactly is being occupied, when foreign forces are rarely able to hold territory for any length of time, and resign themselves to indiscriminately shelling a mountainside to deny territory to the enemy (as Pelton puts it, they were trying to kill a mountain). They exercise a presence, but it’s not clear what they hold. As an imperial mission, and leaving aside the killing of civilians, this mission seems to be more of a gigantic exercise in vandalism, littering, and loitering than actual occupation. I get the sense from reading the article of U.S. forces going through the motions and making a living while there is a job to be had.

*A useful coincidence of articles, see this post: The Afghanistan Scam…


12 thoughts on “Bumming a Ride with the Occupation Parade: A Look at Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan

  1. Old Blue

    Your obvious personal bias concerning what the mission is in Afghanistan has interfered with your ability to detect the BS that this article is full of. There are so many inaccuracies and falsifications in this article, outright fabrications, that it is beyond belief.

    Personally, I’m astounded. It is a hit job, and you are so pleased with the fabrications and manipulations of what facts he does present that you actually compare this article favorably with Featherstone’s well-done piece.


    1. Maximilian Forte

      I was waiting for someone like you. You slander and insult the piece, but without any substantiation, which is typical of bias. Featherstone is a hack, but that is irrelevant here, though I am sure he appreciates a ‘bud’ of his coming here to do his work for him. HTS had a chance to respond to Pelton, and they did, and now read his replies. The only BS here is the kind of slander you circulate.


      U.S. Army Response to Robert Young Pelton’s The New War for Hearts and Minds

      Thu, Feb 12, 2009


      We are writing to clarify and correct a number of points in the February 2009 Men’s Journal article The New War for Hearts and Minds by Robert Pelton.

      In our opinion, Mr. Pelton’s behavior in Afghanistan as a guest of the US Army was unprofessional. First, he published the fact that a member of the Human Terrain team was a former, non-covert analyst employed by the CIA. He was told this information “off the record” and agreed verbally not to publish it.

      Second, Mr. Pelton interfered with LT Jones’ work in the field. While LT Jones was trying to conduct interviews, Mr. Pelton interjected himself into the conversations and questioned the villagers about the Taliban, which is the domain of trained intelligence collectors not visiting journalists.

      Third, he brought a bottle of whiskey with him to Forward Operating Base Morales-Frazier and offered some to the team’s interpreter, which is a violation of US Army general orders.

      Mr. Pelton exhibited a gross disrespect to those serving in Afghanistan. Rather than referring to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader by name or rank, Mr. Pelton identified him by what was printed on a t-shirt worn while off duty.

      Mr. Pelton made the Pennsylvania National Guard PRT Security Force (SECFOR) look foolish based on the comments of one soldier.

      Before becoming PRT SECFOR, this platoon was the only maneuver force in the Nijrab District of Kapisa and was engaged in almost constant combat operations for six months. Forty percent of the platoon received the Purple Heart. One member received the Silver Star for saving the life of an Afghan Soldier in Afghanya Valley. This unit deserves better treatment in Mr. Pelton’s article for their service in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

      Mr. Pelton grossly distorted the backgrounds of the personnel on the Task Force Warrior Human Terrain Team (HTT). He neglected to inform his readers that Team Leader LTC Rotzoll served two previous tours in Afghanistan as a Civil Affairs officer, served on two different Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and has over twenty-seven years of service in the US Army. Mr. Pelton also misrepresented the HTT Social Scientist as an expert on Laotian DNA. On the contrary, this Social Scientist has been conducting research in Afghanistan for over twenty years. He made several trips into Afghanistan with the Mujahedeen during the 1980s to report on the Soviet occupation, and also served as the director of an Afghan Relief Committee.

      Despite Mr. Pelton’s apparent confusion of HTTs with Tactical HUMINT Teams (THT), THTs are not related to HTTs in form, function, or mission. Mr. Pelton’s assertion that “the information Jones and his team collect … is all part of a massive database,” that can be used to perform lethal targeting is a fabrication. Deployed HTTs work solely on the non-kinetic side of the military planning and are not involved in the lethal targeting process.

      Mr. Pelton appears to have been more interested in journalistic sensationalism than the work the HTT was actually doing in the field. While embedded with the brigade combat team, Mr. Pelton did not engage senior leadership on the benefits of the HTS program or the benefits an HTT brought to their command.

      Very Respectfully,

      Dr. Steve Fondacaro
      Project Manager
      U.S. Army Human Terrain System

      Dr. Montgomery McFate
      Senior Social Scientist
      U.S. Army Human Terrain System

      Robert Young Pelton’s response to the U.S. Army:

      Although it’s always appropriate to communicate your opinion on an article, I have to say that attacking the messenger and not the message might be unproductive. As you know, I invested significant effort and patience in not only getting your direct input and following your directives but I had high hopes for a different experience. I wholeheartedly embrace the concept of human terrain teams and continue to follow developments.

      Ultimately I believe any outsider exposed to what I saw would have come away with the same disconcerting sense of dysfunction, isolation and frustration but for the record that was not my goal when I first chose to focus on the human terrain program. My goal was to see the program at its best, not its worst. I don’t lay blame, I just state facts.

      If I may, let me respond to specific comments within your letter.

      – CIA tie: I was told about Lt. Col. Rotzell’s CIA background by someone other than Col. Rotzell who did not ask that it be “off the record.”

      – Interference: When Jones was working I stood well back and discussed his conversations with him later. When he was just chatting with Afghans, I also chatted with Afghans. The fundamental problem seemed to be Jones’s inability to get relevant face time with Afghans so I respected his brief time with his subjects.

      – Whiskey: Yes, I had a fifth. You may not be aware that there are a number of bars on the base. Gulam is Muslim, so there was no reason to offer him alcohol.

      – Disrespect to military personnel.The Lt Col you are referring to was wearing his FUBAR shirt whenever I saw him. He is never “on” or “off” duty in a remote PRT. One reason I withheld his name was to spare him broader embarrassment. As for the overzealous soldier, he conducted his little pantomime in full view of two clearly credentialed journos and the press officer for the French military. His actions aside, I think my portrait of the National Guard does give them the credit they deserve.

      – HTT experience: Rotzell (and Jones) are portrayed as they are: Hard working, underpaid, frustrated but professional soldiers. The social scientist told me about his expertise on Laotian DNA when I asked him about Afghanistan.

      – HTT/THT. It was not my confusion but rather the LT Col’s. I know the difference. The database comment comes directly from Steve’s discussion on all HTT information being available to all aspects of the Brigade Commander’s units, including Direct Action, and my direct knowledge of intelligence gathering. My point is that the Afghans don’t see the difference.

      I wrote what I saw, carefully wrote down what your people told me, documented what happened. What resulted was a comedy of errors, well-intentioned people unable to function, frustrated by constantly fighting the system.

      Since you have the most to gain and the most to lose, I put it back to you: Why not admit that what bothered you about this article was the conduct and problems in the system? I would think that your energy is best spent on fixing the problems, not critiquing someone who points them out.

      peace, out.


      It looks to me like ‘RYP’ just ‘rypped’ them a new one.

  2. Old Blue

    If you consider “rypping” them with lies to be effective, then it is so. RYP is a liar. Look, I was in Afghanistan in the valley that he wrote about. There are numerous fabrications in his story. He says what you want to hear, and so you are eager to take it at face value. You are an opponent of the HTS, presuming that the data gathered is used to target people instead of helping commanders to do fewer kinetic operations. You do not understand counterinsurgency, or its goals. The personal political bias that leads you to use the word, “occupation” is indicative of your political feeling, not science. I defy you to show me one mission statement or any other official representation of our activities in Afghanistan as an “occupation.”

    I’m sure that you were waiting for someone like me, but I’ll not be snowed over so easily. I read both Fondacaro’s response and the drivel by the author. There are other lies of which you are not aware that the author perpetrated in Afghanistan. What would be his reason? The HTS in Afghanistan is the same program as in Iraq. If he can discredit that program, it is possible that he will drum up more business for his private “intelligence” business. Have you checked the author out?

    You are hearing what you want to hear, and it pleases you. You are not behaving as a scientist, Sir. You are behaving as an artist. I submit that “social anthropologists” are not scientists but artists. Scientists don’t allow personal preferences for outcomes to taint their conclusions.

    My experience on the ground in that country allows me to feel the lies and also to feel the truth in the depiction that Featherstone held forth. You call him a hack; on what do you base that? That his story conflicts with your politics?

    I object to Pelton’s story because it is a slanted depiction

  3. Old Blue

    There is a principle that is proof against all learning and any information-

    – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

    I’m not going to spend any more time arguing with you. It would be more productive to piss down a well.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    I gather, therefore, that you consider your writing on your own blog to be “pissing down a well.”

    Your arguments about science versus art are simplistic to the point of utter hopelessness, and I am even more grateful for the sophisticated undergraduate students I have who have never reproduced such elementary distinctions in their own writing and discussion, individuals who understand that there is more of a continuum between science and art, who understand that science is an art form, and art is a higher science than one that resigns itself to counting atoms. You are welcome to the latter, I gladly leave it to you.

    I may not understand counterinsurgency the way you, a biased insider with his own axe to grind, want me to understand it. Don’t accuse Pelton of having an axe to grind, when it appears that you are a mercenary, who thinks the war in Afghanistan is good business for you and you want it to never end as long as you can cash in.

    You seem to have a very serious problem in tolerating any kind of dissenting opinion. You pose a preposterous challenge to me that proves my point:

    “I defy you to show me one mission statement or any other official representation of our activities in Afghanistan as an ‘occupation’.”

    Mission statement? “Official” representation? I see, so you are asking me to base my thinking solely on what is allowed and authorized by those in power. If those in power do not say that their armed presence in Afghanistan is an occupation, then I cannot say it is an occupation. You’re nothing more than a Donald Rumsfeld clone: it’s not a “resistance,” because we don’t like the word, even if it is a “resistance.”

    Just what kind of slave did you take me for?

    So what is it if not an occupation? I defy you to think, not parrot.

    Until the U.S. and NATO find a way of hovering in mid-air, silently, unarmed, without dominating and dictating to Afghans, it is an occupation.

    The first rule of being a scientist — listen up, you should be interested in this — is to be skeptical of official truths. The second rule is that you call things by the name they clearly and plainly deserve.

    You are entitled to fancy the occupation as a police action, a humanitarian effort, or a birthday party — I really don’t care. I am not required to repeat your doctrine, however. Doctrine and science are enemies. You have no love for science, you just use it as a convenient weapon against science engaged with public issues.

    I can reverse your argument overall when you said, very foolishly, “He says what you want to hear, and so you are eager to take it at face value.” Well, he says what you do not want to hear, and so you are eager to dismiss it out of hand. That’s not science either.

    In the meantime, you continue to NOT provide a single scrap of contrary evidence, just more shooting of the messenger, more ad hominems, more demands that we all take you, some anonymous character, at your word, without any evidence to go on. And you call that “science”? How dare you.

    So please go back to pissing down a well, because your urine is not welcome here for any longer than it is necessary for me to prove that people like you are full of piss and hot air.

    Hoorah, jackass.

  5. MadAxe

    Have you read this Old Blue’s post on Pelton? It was the longest piece of juvenile insults and slander I have read in ages and that includes Weird’s Deranged Room. I wonder who he thinks he will convince with that kind of snickering, living-room editorializing-at-the-TV kind of twaddle? Not even once does he give any kind of support to his arguments, just “I know, I was there, no way this could be, trust me, my blog is called Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure so you know I gotta be right”.

    The man is an idiot and you shouldn’t be giving the prick any kind of space on your blog.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I am following your suggestion though: mounting his comment, like a dead deer’s head, as an ethnographic specimen for others to gawk at. He volunteers his spew for such examination, and I am happy to provide the glass case in which to contain it. What we end up with then is a kind of museum of the mercenary mentality, headed toward an extinction wrought by its own dogmatic blindness. All these Old Blues, so right and righteous, will one day have to confront how wrong and stupid they were, how they once again lost, how they got defeated, how they were booted out, and nothing they had to say could explain it because in their minds they were always right.

      So all he can do is rant and rave about the obvious facts, that it is an occupation (at least where it is present), that is understood, seen, and treated as an occupation. Old Blue types want to impose a military Political Correctness, where you are not allowed to call things what they are, you can only use pretty words that make what they do look good, including the work of a mercenary adventurist. Next he will dispute the term “adventurism,” in spite of the presence of the idea in his very blog title.

      Besides, we need something to laugh at here, and he provides us with free comedy, so at least look at it that way.

  6. Old Blue

    I have on many occasions pointed out where the Emperor has no pants on and have disagreed with the official line that we are “getting” COIN doctrine right in Afghanistan. So, you haven’t read my writings.

    You like Pelton’s article because it agrees with your article, even if a man with experience on the ground there points out that it is full of fabrications.

    Whether you view it as comedy or not, others are taking it seriously.

    Don’t let your politics paint your “science,” Professor, for that is exactly what you are doing.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Old Blue, I really do not think you are understanding me at all. I won’t get into the several thousand, perfectly valid critiques of what you call “science” that make the word foul and virtually useless — what is far more objectionable, and less credible, is your notion that there is a science that is divorced from politics. And that is where you are completely wrong, and take it from someone who knows what he is talking about when he talks about such subjects. You will find it very hard to come across even a natural scientist, someone in chemistry, or physics, who will back you up on such a view of science. In fact, the only thing you really object to here is that I do not agree with your view, nor does Pelton.

      Science and objectivity is not where your side gets to “win” before the game even starts.

  7. Pingback: Questions and Allegations about Robert Young Pelton’s Reporting on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  8. Maximilian Forte

    Given further facts and allegations that have been brought to light, thanks to Old Blue, please read the item above. You can post comments now on that story, and they will be closed here.

Comments are closed